Côte d’Ivoire faces mounting election pressure

The international community is upping the pressure on the West African country of Côte d’Ivoire to hold a presidential election and end a political and security crisis that began seven years ago with a failed coup.

The United Nations (UN) Security Council last week called for an election to be held by May 31, before mandates for a UN force with nearly 8 000 personnel and a deployment of 1 800 French troops in the country run out.

It urged “the relevant Ivorian stakeholders to ensure the publication of the final voters list, to announce the official date of the first round of the presidential election and to meet their commitments in full”.

France’s UN ambassador, Gerard Araud, told reporters after the vote that the UN would begin lifting sanctions once the election takes place.

“We have been waiting for elections in Côte d’Ivoire for years. Ivorian democracy must function and we will not wait indefinitely,” he warned.

His US counterpart, Susan Rice, said the country’s move towards national reconciliation “has been stalled” by delays in holding the election.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reiterated the point on Sunday, telling a summit of the African Union in Ethiopia: “I urge the parties to overcome the outstanding issues and set a definite date for the election.”

He suggested that it should be held before the end of March.

The poll is aimed at ending a crisis that began with an attempted coup against President Laurent Gbagbo in September 2002, which left the country split between the rebel-held north and a government-controlled south.

Côte d’Ivoire is a former French colony with a population of 20-million.

The election has already been delayed six times since 2005, when Gbagbo’s mandate ran out. And now a fresh scandal is threatening to delay the vote yet again.

Interior Minister Desire Tagro earlier this month said he would ask prosecutors to open an inquiry into a possible case of voter-list fraud by the country’s electoral commission after a local press report.

He said the information was “of extreme seriousness”.

The Independent Electoral Commission, or CEI under its French-language acronym, refutes allegations of fraud but has acknowledged major problems in managing voter lists.

The scandal is seriously affecting preparations for the crucial election.

Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, former leader of the New Forces rebel movement, has ordered a full re-examination of the CEI’s work.

“We’re stalling,” a Western diplomatic source told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity. One Côte d’Ivoire expert said election preparations have effectively ground to a halt, adding “the machine has broken down”.

Gbagbo’s supporters have said they are now expecting the resignation of CEI chief Robert Beugre Mambe, a member of the opposition. Mambe has refused.

The opposition is in turn accusing the authorities of stirring up the scandal in order to delay the vote — and allow Gbagbo to stay in power.

Adding to the tension, the New Forces issued a statement on Sunday condemning what they said were moves to strike people from the north from voter lists on the grounds that they were not genuine Ivorians.

They denounced “arbitrary arrests, slander and all kinds of attempts to exclude many Ivorians from the definitive voter list, by accusing them without proof of Ivorian nationality fraud”.

Discord over who is allowed to claim citizenship of Côte d’Ivoire was one of the main causes of the outbreak of war in 2002.

While calling for “calm and restraint”, the ex-rebels warned against the “unpredictable consequences these attempts to strip people of their nationality could provoke”.

Meanwhile Gbagbo launched celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Côte d’Ivoire’s independence from France on Sunday, saying the event would help people reflect on what direction the country should be taking.

“How have we used the 50 years since independence and what are we going to ask our children and grandchildren to do in the 50 years to come?” he said.

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